Outside View: Russian rail ICBMs -- Part 1

By YURY ZAITSEV, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  March 10, 2008 at 11:45 AM
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MOSCOW, March 10 (UPI) -- In February 1983 a rail-based missile system entered trial service in the Soviet Union.

Equipped with the RT-23 solid-fuel missile, the trains were able to stealthily travel more than 1,000 kilometers -- 622 miles -- a day, and launch missiles from any stop en route.

One regiment comprised a train consisting of three diesel locomotives and 17 cars, including nine flat cars with three missile launchers. The system was to become the core of a retaliation strike group because of its high survival potential in the event of an enemy first strike.

The first missile regiment with the RT-23 -- SS-24 Scalpel -- long-range ballistic missiles went on combat duty in October 1987. By mid-1988, the number of launchers increased to 20; and by 1999, there were three missile divisions with four missile regiments, or 36 launchers, in each. The rail systems were deployed at fixed locations 2 miles from each another. Whenever they went on duty, they dispersed.

The Scalpel missile has been fired only once. Launched during an exercise in the Kostroma Region, it hit a target in Kamchatka. American monitors were unable to fix the train's coordinates either before or after the launch.

In the early 1990s the Soviet leadership under President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to suspend rail patrols. The final blow was dealt by the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- START-2 -- arms-control agreement, which stipulated the scrapping of all Scalpel missiles. But when the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002, Moscow declared START-2, which had never been ratified, to be void.

The Russian authorities halted the destruction of several unique strategic weapons, including the rail missile system. Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of the Strategic Missile Force, said the system should remain part of the force until 2010. Increasing budgetary allocations gave hope that the system could one day be returned to combat duty.

But the reprieve was short-lived. Soon afterward the military command decided to scrap it after all. The first of the systems was dismantled in Bryansk in June 2003. The last rail missile system, of the Kostroma Division, was removed from combat duty in 2005 and cut up a year later.

The official reasons for the decision were obsolete design, the high costs of resuming production in Russia -- the missiles were initially made in Ukraine -- and the advantages of towed missile launchers.

Scalpel missiles were first tested in 1985-1987 and were put on combat duty two years later. The SS-19 Stiletto missile, on the other hand, was tested in 1977-1979 and went on combat duty in 1980, almost 10 years before the Scalpel. But Russia plans to keep between 70 and 100 Stilettos in the Strategic Missile Force until 2013.

The SS-19 Stiletto missile was designed and produced in Russia and has proved very reliable during long periods of combat duty. Besides, Ukraine had turned over to Russia brand-new components for about 30 such missiles, which probably helped extend their service life to 30 years.

Next: The case for reviving rail-mobile ICBMs


(Yury Zaitsev is a research adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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